This post was written by William Ganucheau, who is a a sophomore studying computer science at Carnegie Mellon University. He likes writing beautiful code that does cool things. You can find him on his blog here.
Last year while I was looking at perspective colleges, and even once I had decided on CMU, I was very interested in the student perspective; what it’s like to actually
be a student at Carnegie Mellon. Surprisingly, there was very little available aside from the standard student life page on each university’s website. Seeing as I’ve completed roughly a semester and a half now, I thought I’d go ahead and contribute for anyone who might be interested in that sort of thing.
Since a significant portion of the post will be subjective, my background is probably relevant as it definitely shapes my expectations and opinions of things. First things first, I’m a freshman studying computer science. Before college, I spent three years at The Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts a public school for high-achieving highschoolers in Louisiana. LSMSA is actually situated on a college campus, and most of the classes are taught by college professors at a college level; about 90% of my teachers had a terminal degree in their field of study. As a result, I had already experienced a lot of what is often lumped into the “college experience.” Namely, I had spent three years living relatively independently in a dorm, I was being taught at a college level, and I was being exposed to a truly diverse group of people; much more than an average highschool. I point this out mainly because these are all aspects which may have a significant impact on one’s college epxerience, but they weren’t for me, so I probably won’t talk about them as much. Additionally, I’m one of the most introverted people you’ll ever meet (if you ever meet me..) so I can’t comment much on the social scene at CMU either.
As a freshman, your first real look at CMU will be during orientation week. I mean sure, those summer tours are great, but they don’t really give you a feel for the campus and student body. Before anything else, you have to move in. I must say, the orientation staff make this absolutely painless. I got out of my car, they told me to go do some logistical things like get my ID and some CMU swag, and by the time I got back my stuff was already at the door of my room…on the third floor. Already, I’m digging this place. The week continued pretty much as expected, awkward ice breakers, cool performances and shows, crowded meals, and lots of walking. As an introvert, a lot of the week was uncomfortable for me; I suspect that that’s the case for a lot of CMU students, especially computer science majors. I didn’t really end up with a close-knit group of friends like many people seemed to; however, that’s not for lack of opportunities, and probably more for lack of me trying/knowing how.
After orientation, I got my first experience of real college life. A few classes, surprisingly not terrible food, and a pretty substantial amount of homework. My first class was Matter and Interactions I, which is described as the “Honors Physics” course at CMU. I felt compelled to take this course for a variety of reasons. First of all, without it I would have been carrying “only” 40 units of classes. (For a freshman, the maximum is 55 and the minimum is like 35, I think) Despite having been accepted into one of the most prestigious schools in the world, while I was scheduling my classes I for some reason still felt the need to “prove” myself. To justify my presence. I thought that the best way to do this was to take as many hard classes as I possibly could. As if somehow I was being a slacker if I wasn’t taking the maximum number of units every semester. Within about two weeks, I gravely regretted my decision. One of the most dangerous traps that I fell into during that first semester (and still do to this day) is making the assumption that because my computer science classes are super hard (and they are), all of my other classes are super easy. (and they aren’t).
Matter and Interactions kicked my ass and the ass of just about everyone else in that class. It was hard, and it took up a lot of my time. And the worst part? I don’t think it really even matters. I mean, I’m not a physics major, I have no intention of getting a degree in physics. I could have taken the intro physics class and my graduation requirement would have been just as fulfilled, recruiters probably wouldn’t have known the difference, and I would have had more time to spend doing things that did matter, like my CS classes, side projects, and research.
Eventually, I got into the groove of things and developed a pretty routine schedule. I had class every day til about mid-afternoon, went to Gates and watched Netflix until 5, grabbed dinner, worked on any homework due the next day, played video games, and went to sleep.
On the weekends, I spent my Saturday afternoons playing video games or working on side projects and my Saturday nights (about 8pm-1am) working on problem sets because I honestly didn’t have anything better to do. Typically I could finish about half of my week’s work on Saturday nights.
On Sundays I went to my research meeting and worked on that for a few hours, then worked on homework until a meeting for the FSAE team at 6:30, before having dinner, going to mass, and going to bed.
This was how just about every week played out. Honestly, it wasn’t that bad, aside from the inevitable frustration over my math assignment, I was pretty satisfied. Still, it seems as though this pattern of routine-ness is inevitable; or at least I haven’t found a solution. This semester is pretty much the same except I have a lot more work. Great Theoretical Ideas for Computer Scientists (15-251) is, according to many, one of the most challenging CS courses students are required to take at Carnegie Mellon; I easily dedicate 6-10 hours per week just working on the homework not to mention attending lectures and “homework writing sessions.” (Don’t ask.)
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. When I decided to come to CMU, I expected to be pushed harder than I’ve ever been pushed before, and to get my ego taken down a few pegs. Both of those events occurred within about a week. The grind isn’t bad…in many ways it prepares you for the real world, for a job, but it is a grind nonetheless and it can wear you down. On the brightside, to counteract the grind, CMU students, especially CS students, are presented with loads of perks that make the grind worth it.
Carnegie Mellon University has one of the top computer science programs in the country. Naturally, there are benefits. The first that I noticed was just how eager companies and recruiters are to talk to you. I remember sitting in Gates (the computer science building) one afternoon and a company’s recruiter came around the study area handing out cookies and flyers for a tech talk that evening. Maybe it’s just me, but that blew my mind. Companies really reallywant to hire you. Even as a freshman, it’s pretty normal for students to get summer internships at Google, Amazon, Microsoft, etc. as well as smaller startups working on really cool things.
Another huge perk is the caliber of the faculty working here. World famous professors in any field are normal, professors working on things that could truly change the world. And the best part? They’ll let you work with them. I knew coming into Carnegie Mellon that I wanted to get a taste for doing research, so I started looking at professors doing cool things. I eventually found Dr. Red Whittaker. He’s done some pretty freaking cool things like building an award winning autonomous vehicle, and leading the pack for the Google Lunar XPrize. I walked into his office one day and asked him if there would be room for me to work in his lab and within a month (he’s a busy guy) I was writing software for a 30cm x 30cm x 30cm experimental lunar rover. Opportunities and perks abound at CMU, and I’ve done my best to take advantage of them as much as possible.
The Journey Continues
I’ve only been here for about 6 months now, so I’m still figuring stuff out, but I’ve definitely learned a lot already. I’ve learned that I don’t need to be the best at everything. I don’t even need to be the best at anything. In fact, there’s probably many people better at me in just about everything. The best I can do is my best, so that’s what I’m going for. One step at a time, the journey continues, and so far it’s been totally worth it.